Historically, the night of senior prom is supposed to be a magical capstone that defines our high school experiences. It’s the night to which we compare all other nights that make up our adolescence. We don’t know what to expect, but that’s part of the excitement. Anything can happen. You’re dressed to the nines, surrounded by your friends in a fancy environment that makes you feel like an adult—and after all, aren’t you an adult? Graduation is only weeks away, and then you enter the real world, whatever that means. This is your last night to define High School You™ and to show your peers how you want to be remembered when you look back on your high school career.
When Heights High School student Miles Steinmeyer walked into his senior prom, he didn’t know what to expect. He was excited. But that excitement, as it always is when Miles takes bold steps into the unknown, was colored by fear. Miles is tall on an average day, but as he strode into prom in a pair of four-inch heels, he towered over his classmates, statuesque. There was no way for Miles to blend in. He didn’t want to blend in.
“I wore a black Calvin Klein pencil dress with a flared sleeve and a fur collar,” Miles said. “I had on a real string of pearls that I have been saving for a really long time, clip-on earrings, makeup, heels, everything. I was expecting looks, boos, stares.”
Miles, who was assigned male at birth, identifies as genderfluid: a person whose gender identity is not fixed and can shift depending on the person’s environment or feelings. Gender fluidity exists outside the notion of a gender binary. Genderfluid persons can present in ways that could be considered traditionally masculine or feminine without the trappings and restrictions of adhering to one gender or another. Miles’ identity gives him a uniquely empathetic perspective on the struggles faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ+) young people—one that has helped him to garner the trust and confidence of the Heights High School Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA), an organization for which Miles serves as president.
For Miles, the most important thing that the GSA provides to Heights High School is a safe space. LGBTQ+ youth are victims of bullying and harassment with greater frequency than their straight and cisgender (non-transgender) classmates. As a result, they are more than four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight and cisgender peers .
Miles wants the GSA to be a place where other queer students can feel validated without having to compromise their physical and emotional security. “My leadership and myself, we strive to create a safe space,” said Miles. “There shouldn’t be a question about whether or not someone has access to a safe space outside of counseling or administration. It’s important because there aren’t a lot of safe spaces that people know of. If I can put the GSA posters up or talk about it on the announcements, then it’s heard and seen.”
Miles was handed the reigns of the GSA by former Heights High School Librarian, Shane Kenney. While Kenney moved on from HISD in 2020, Miles credits him with much of his personal development during his high school career.
“He was my greatest influence, especially about being authentically myself without offending people,” Miles said. “My theater teacher, people in administration—I know this is not a universal situation, but I’ve had a lot of positive experiences with adults on campus.”
Now that Miles has graduated, he is confident that the GSA will continue to evolve and the foundation that he and his leadership laid out will support and unite future generations of LGBTQ+ Heights students.
Miles, who plans to become a school librarian himself, hopes to follow in the footsteps of the educators who inspired him. Miles considers himself to be a blunt person, someone who had to learn to approach conversations tactfully and to keep a sometimes-overactive temper in check. As Miles prepares to march into the future as a genderfluid adult amid a polarizing national conversation about the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming (GNC) individuals, that bluntness and fierceness has become defense.
Miles lives his life in flux, his presentation dependent on his environment and the people around him. Day to day, how Miles presents hinges on his ability to protect himself.
“I have to pick and choose when I can really be myself,” Miles said. “As hard as it is to say, it is just the reality of the situation. I could sugar-coat it and say I walk around, and I am myself everywhere I go, but I know when I need to put parts of myself away. It’s safeguarding yourself. Self-preservation as a queer person in this political climate is so important. Survival is key.”
For the first time in HISD history, earlier this year the district hosted a LGBTQ+ Pride Summit, an event held virtually due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The summit featured guest speakers from volunteer mentoring network Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, local Houston LGBTQ+ support organization The Montrose Center, and the oldest LGBTQ+ advocacy group in existence, PFLAG. HISD also welcomed Texas State Representative Ann Johnson.
With students like Miles in mind, HISD is devoting itself to uplifting its LGBTQ+ students and faculty and building on a foundation of inclusion and open-mindedness to make the district as safe and inclusive a place as possible. The Pride Summit was the first step toward this goal, focusing on connecting students and their caretakers with community resources, resources within HISD, and with each other.
Miles reminds himself daily that the struggles facing his community aren’t easy ones, but with the support of the GSA and the educators who help the group’s members to thrive, every day brings him closer to a world in which he and his friends will not have to hide. Despite what he’s seen and the knowledge that the career path he has chosen is going to be a challenging one to traverse, Miles approached his high school graduation with confidence. His experiences with affirming and encouraging educators has not only helped him to determine his trajectory in life, but to understand himself and his identity in a safe environment. Miles hopes to be that supportive presence in the lives of his future students and plans to take the lessons that he learned at Heights High School with him on his journey to creating a more accepting future for LGBTQ+ youth.
“Fundamentally, it starts with the fact that queer people don’t choose to be queer,” Miles said. “A lot of people know that they are queer at a very young age and it’s difficult to articulate that because of your ignorance to the community. The more you learn through the internet, through friends, through people that you know, the better you can understand yourself.
“It is hard. It is difficult. A lot of people are going to tell you not to do it because it is not the norm, it’s not what people do, but I would whole-heartedly recommend that you do what you need to do. Step on people’s toes, step over people if you need to, because in the end, you might make people mad, but you are going to end up in a happier place yourself.”
Miles was nervous walking into his senior prom in the dress he picked out and accessorized with such loving care, the pearls he’d been saving for a special occasion, and the ruby red lipstick with which he so meticulously lined his lips. He had a pit in his stomach, every step an act of rebellion.
“The barriers don’t break if we don’t move them,” said Miles, and he smiled. “People loved it. As I walked in the door, it was like a weight off my shoulders. There’s no other way to make progress without moving forward. It takes a big step, and it took a big step for me in four-inch heels, but I made it.”
 Johns, M.M., Lowry, R., Andrzejewski, J., Barrios, L.C., Zewditu, D., McManus, T., et al. (2019). Transgender identity and experiences of violence victimization, substance use, suicide risk, and sexual risk behaviors among high school student–19 states and large urban school districts, 2017. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 68(3), 65-71.
Johns MM, Lowry R, Haderxhanaj LT, et al. (2020). Trends in violence victimization and suicide risk by sexual identity among high school students — Youth Risk Behavior Survey, United States, 2015–2019. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly, 69(Suppl-1):19–27.